After negotiating the weekend parking menace for ten minutes, I meet him out front. I don’t notice right away that our shirts are nearly an identical match, but it’s early and people are sober. Two pale white men of a certain age wearing lightly checked button-downs in a Cuban cigar bar isn’t the kind of thing likely to go unnoticed for long.
I scan the room; Jeffrey gawks. I tell him to occasionally allow his eyes to drift off target and not to move his neck and torso when he wants to have a better look at someone. “It’s rudimentary field craft,” I joke without much enthusiasm. He follows the instructions, but his movements are slow and mechanical, giving him the appearance of a particularly pervy automaton. He becomes distracted by the cigar case, and it’s like a jolt of electricity speeds up his moving parts. He draws the attention of an attendant, asks a few questions while pointing an index finger at the glass, and selects something that isn’t Cuban, but is probably passable.
Jeffrey excuses himself as he walks away to pick up a box of wooden matches that’s sitting on a high top on the other side of the room. He returns, strikes a match, and we talk about the events of the day, month, and year as he puffs on his cigar. They’ve all been singularly bad periods for both of us, but by unspoken mutual acquiescence, we stop talking about them. Neither of us want to bring them to the evening. The music, sultry and exotic, moves Jeffrey. Brown liquor infects me, and I grow sullen.
Jeffrey has come down from Toronto to stay for the summer. No longer aspiring to play professional hockey, he’s taken to dancing for exercise and entertainment. He’s good. He enters contests back home and walks away with money. $50, $100, $250 prizes. He says it’s for fun, but in Canada, he more than covers his bar tabs, takes home cash, and talks to girls. He favors New Wave music and dances while wearing Terminator sunglasses. There’s a $500 cash prize at a local Crown Liquor lounge in a neighboring town. Five-hundred American greenbacks. Hard cash for a few minute’s work. Jeffrey is wearing his trademark shades, billowy pants, and a Mad Max haircut. His moves are smooth and unconventional, and he gets loud applause, which matters because the winner will be selected by moving a needle on a sound meter.
I ask for a double Jack Daniels neat. I can’t drink whiskey and I make a face every time I take a sip. I order it because I think it makes me look manly. When I turn around with my translucent plastic cup in hand, I see the woman who gave me my first kiss at the age of thirteen.
It’s my birthday. Melissa is my cousin Hope’s best friend—three years older than me. She’s used some sort of teenage enchantress hex to make me fall in love with her. In the habit of all beautiful women in the 1980’s, she has no interest in me, but she kisses me on the lips. Hope probably dared her. She’s always been a good cousin.
1988 Again (Crown Liquor Lounge)
“Hi Michael,” she says with the confidence of a woman who knows that she could ruin a man with a look—particularly when the man in question is still incapable of growing a beard. It was always her eyes. I’m willing to bet they still haven’t changed. I take a gulp of the Jack Daniels in my glass.
“What are you drinking?” she asks.
“Bourbon,” I rasp. It’s not, but I don’t know the difference.
“Oh, wow. Are you drinking that because you think it makes you look like a man,” she laughs. She was being cute, not mean, but I can’t remember what else was said.
I turn away and toss a hot splash of liquid against the back of my throat, which causes me to cough and sputter. I imagine Melissa walking up behind me and asking me if I’m all right. That would represent an unbearable humiliation, so I force my back to straighten and quicken my pace, moving toward the restroom.
When I return to the bar, an African-American man who goes by “Dancing Sam” has taken the center of the dance floor as Rubberband Man by the Spinner’s kicks on. He’s wearing a red sequined vest and matching brimmed hat. The crowd is instantly charmed as the disco lights ricochet off the sequins and cut through the smokey room, like diffused laser beams. He puts on a powerful aerial display. Dancing Sam takes the prize money. Jeffrey is gracious in defeat.
Cigar Bar in the Here and Now
The bar is filling up with dancing Latin women and their dates, but we can’t tell who is with whom. Jeffrey instructs me on a few catch phrases that I can use to try to flirt should the opportunity arise. I try them out; he mocks me. He starts moving in time with the music. I try to match his movements—not face to face; that would be weird—but the result is mortifying, nonetheless. Jeffrey is fluid and rhythmic, and I stab the air with nervous hands and feet. But even if I was good, we’d still be two men with our backs pressed against a wall, bouncing around. I stop and sip whiskey from a shot glass. This time it’s bourbon.
I excuse myself and saunter over to the restroom where I join a single-file line of quiet men staring at cell phones. After several minutes, I’m on deck, and there’s no one behind me. A young man wearing a polo-shirt rockets past me and bangs against the locked door, like a scud missile hitting the desert floor. He looks perplexed, so I explain that someone is already using it. I tell him that he can go ahead of me if he needs to, but instead, he heads outside. On my way back to Jeffrey, couples are dancing in my path, dancing between tables, dancing wherever four feet can fit. There are as many women smoking cigars as men. People are laughing, swirling, and drinking. The scene is colorful, sexy, fun.